Among artists of the twentieth century Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) stands out in many respects. He must be the only one who was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and whose seven thousand paintings are among his lesser-known accomplishments. He was a polymath who trained first as a lawyer, but is much better-known for his spiritual philosophy and public profile. He painted prolifically throughout his adult life, and is generally accepted as being symbolist for much of that. This article looks only at his paintings which are based on expeditions; I will write more about the rest of his career in future articles.
Roerich was born and raised in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and trained simultaneously in law at the Saint Petersburg University, and at the Imperial Academy of Arts. He soon became involved with Sergei Diaghilev and designing for his productions for the Ballets Russes. Early in the twentieth century, while he was busy painting buildings across the Russian Empire, he became interested in Asian religions and Theosophy. These led him to occult mysticism, and after the February Revolution of 1917 he played a part in leading the arts under the new government. He didn’t take so well to the October Revolution, though, and in early 1918 emigrated to Finland. By 1919, he had moved to London, then in the early 1920s he toured the USA exhibiting his paintings.
In 1923, Roerich took his family to Darjeeling in India, to start exploring the Himalaya. He met members of the 1924 British Everest Expedition there, before returning to the US in 1924.
His first proper expedition to the Himalaya left New York in 1925 for Sikkim and Asia. Over the next 4-5 years, he, his family and six friends travelled through Punjab, Sikkim, the Karakoram Mountains, the Altai Mountains, Mongolia and Tibet. Their official mission was to act as the embassy of Western Buddhism to Tibet, but they also had scientific and artistic purposes. For a year, between 1927-28, the expedition was believed to have been lost, after it had been attacked in Tibet and detained there by the local government. They were confined for months in extreme conditions and with minimal rations, during which five members of his team died.
Himalayas, Sikkim (c 1928-29) appears to be a ‘tempera’ sketch made on canvas in the Himalaya. This is now an Indian state which borders on Tibet and Nepal, and includes Kangchenjunga (8,586 metres high).
Roerich painted several series using mountain scenes which he may have derived from the many views which he sketched during his expeditions. Arjuna, from his Kulu series, was painted in 1929-30. It shows the main protagonist from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata with a bolt of lightning among Himalayan peaks.
Mount of Five Treasures (Two Worlds), from his Holy Mountains series, was painted in 1933, and probably shows Kanchenjunga, which is described further below.
Tibet, Himalayas (1933) shows a Buddhist monastery high up in the mountains. At the left is a prayer flag.
In 1934-35, Roerich was sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture to collect plant seeds in Mongolia, Manchuria and China. They explored the Greater Khingan Mountains, the Gobi and Ordos Deserts, and the Helan Mountains.
He painted Compassion in 1936, again setting a narrative apparently drawn from Indian writings against Himalayan peaks.
From Beyond, also known as From There, from 1936 apparently shows the ‘Belovodsk woman’, drawn from legend related to Roerich by people living in Verkhniy Uymon. This shows a scene set in the ‘Kokushi’ Mountains, which most probably refers to the Altai Mountains, now in the Altai Republic, Russia.
Roerich had settled in India by the outbreak of the Second World War, and lived its duration in his house in Himachal Pradesh, in the foothills of the Himalaya.
Roerich painted this superb view of the distant mountain Kanchenjunga in 1944, when he was living in India. This is the third highest mountain in the world, rising to 8,586 metres (28,169 feet), and wasn’t climbed until 1955. This view may have been painted in Darjeeling, and shows the mountain in the rich light of dusk. The peak of Kanchenjunga is a holy place, and by convention those who climb it stop short of desecrating its summit.
Roerich died in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India, in 1947.